16 ‘vital signs’ of the planet’s health are now at record extremes
An assessment of 35 key factors in Earth’s climate system, such as greenhouse gas concentrations and ocean temperatures, finds that many are “flashing red”
26 October 2022
An international coalition of climate scientists has issued a “code red” alert for the planet, warning that humanity is “unequivocally facing a climate emergency” after decades of rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now at a record 420 parts per million, triggering increasingly severe climate impacts around the globe, from intense forest fires and extreme heatwaves to storm surges and devastating flooding.
Out of 35 “planetary vital signs” the researchers assessed, 16 are at record extremes and are “flashing red” on the climate dashboard, according to their report. These include livestock numbers, human population, global consumption of natural gas, greenhouse gas concentrations and ocean temperatures.
“We track an extensive set of 35 planetary vital signs, ranging from deforestation to ocean acidification. This helps to provide a complete picture of the state of the climate crisis,” says William Ripple at Oregon State University, one of the lead authors of the paper. “We hope that being able to directly see the impacts of catastrophic climate change will cause more people to listen to our warning about the climate emergency.”
It is 30 years since scientists first issued a “warning to humanity” about our impact on Earth. Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by roughly 40 per cent since then, despite regular, similar warnings from scientists. Most recently, in 2019, Ripple and 11,000 fellow scientists warned that Earth faces a “climate emergency” without radical action.
Yet in the past two years, the situation has become even more serious, with pollutants including methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide at record levels, polar ice cover at record lows and oceans warming at a rapid rate.
But there are some causes for optimism, says Ripple. “There are a couple of bright spots, such as rapid growth in institutional divestment from fossil fuel companies and a further increase in climate emergency declarations, which will hopefully lead to more climate mitigation efforts.”
World set to overshoot 1.5°C target
The warning comes less than a fortnight before the COP27 climate summit kicks off in Egypt, where negotiators are tasked with accelerating action to cut emissions and help countries adapt to the escalating impacts of climate change.
Nations are together aiming to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, a goal agreed unanimously in 2015. But an assessment released on 26 October by analysts at Systems Change Lab, a climate organisation backed by the Bezos Earth Fund, suggests that the world is still set to overshoot the 1.5°C warming threshold by a wide margin.
The report, pitched as a “handbook” for COP27 attendees, warns that although some progress has been made on rolling out renewables and electric cars, in many sectors of the economy, action to cut emissions must be radically accelerated.
The phase-out of coal power from electricity systems, for example, must be at least six times faster than the current pace of change. That is equivalent to withdrawing almost 1000 average-sized coal power plants every year from global electricity systems.
Meanwhile, the shift to healthier, more sustainable diets containing less meat and dairy needs to happen five times faster – equivalent to every person across Europe, the Americas and Oceania eating no more than two beef burgers a week.
“This report provides the most professional assessment to date of humanity’s progress on our climate ‘to do’ list,” said Andrew Steer at the Bezos Earth Fund in a press release. “Its findings should evoke two emotions. First, a sense of shame and anger that we are failing to live up to our commitments to act. Second, a sense of hope and possibility that real change is within grasp and can lead to a healthier economy, healthier citizens, and a healthier society.”
Journal reference: BioScience, DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biac083
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